By Lara Korte
ELGIN — When Tootsie Pop came to Austin Community College a few weeks ago, she was a bit of a “hot mess.”
“You couldn’t walk her on a leash, couldn’t really do anything with her,” recalled Emily Henderson, a first-year student in ACC’s veterinary technician program. “And now she walks on just regular leashes. She’s very receptive to training, she loves being pet and touched and talked to.”
Tootsie Pop, a 1-year-old blue heeler mix, is one of the more than dozen shelter animals that Henderson and other students in ACC’s veterinary technician program work with as part of a partnership with local animal shelters. The pets, which come from Bastrop County Animal Shelter, get a chance to acclimate to life outside of a shelter and learn skills that make them more adoptable.
For the students, having a variety of breeds — of both cats and dogs — means better training for life after graduation. Over the course of a semester, the more than 30 students in the program take care of at least a dozen pets.
“It’s really nice to be able to learn these early skills on these animals that are needing that human attention anyway,” said Regina Bohmfalk, a professor of veterinarian technology at the school. “It’s nice to have that contact. Sometimes it’s as simple as learning how to hold them properly, learning how to walk them on a leash, how to put them on a harness, how to put on an Elizabethan collar: those ‘cones of shame.’”
It starts with Bastrop County Animal Shelter workers identifying strays that would be best suited for the program. Then the animals are transferred to ACC’s Elgin campus, where students provide care such as vaccinations, dental work and heartworm prevention, as well as basic training, socialization and playtime.
Previously, the pets would be returned to the animal shelter. But now, thanks to a recent agreement, animals that aren’t adopted directly from the program (“I’ve taken three myself,” admitted ACC’s Bohmfalk) are transferred to Austin Pets Alive, a no-kill shelter in Travis County, to find their forever homes.
“The vet techs here were putting in months of effort and work learning and training with these dogs and returning them to Bastrop. But unfortunately, Bastrop isn’t yet no-kill,” said Katera Berent, public relations and events manager for Austin Pets Alive. “There is still a chance that those dogs could be euthanized for space reasons.”
The animals won’t stay at Austin Pets Alive’s facilities for long, however. Most go straight from the shelter to being adopted.
“It’s just a lot easier for them to get adopted when they’ve had that love and support for so long already,” Berent said.
Students train for two years to earn their Associate of Applied Science degree in veterinary technology. First year students learn the basics of animal health and care, and second year students progress to helping with surgery procedures.
All of them get plenty of time to play and socialize with the animals.
“The students are walking them two to three times a day,” Baumfalk said. “They get a lot of human contact, they’re starting to learn skills. We have a lot of our dogs that can give a high-five, and sit and lie down and be really well-behaved dogs before they leave here.”
Berent, with Austin Pets Alive, said she wants people to know that shelter pets need just as much love and attention as any other animal.
“They want to be loved, they want to have a home, they want to go on walks with you and smile at you and wiggle up to you,” she said. “I think that’s such a big thing to know.”
More information about ACC’s adoptable pets can be found at AustinCC.edu/pets